Birding the Americas Trip Report and Planning Repository
Return to the Main Index

Return to the North America Index
Return to the Caribbean Index
Return to the Puerto Rico Index


11 - 12 March 1999

by Mark Oberle

While working on our photo book & CD-Rom of birds of Puerto Rico, my family and I took a brief trip to Vieques Island which is 7 miles east of the main island of Puerto Rico.  Vieques is a separate municipio (county) with about 8000 inhabitants.  It is 18 x 5 miles in size (  2/3 of the island (the eastern and western ends) is owned by the Navy and is used for artillery practice.  Some of the Navy reservation is opened to the public at certain times.  The island is covered with arid scrub forest, and ecologically is much like the US and British Virgin Islands, but without the over development (despite the fact that house prices are low and potable water is piped in from Naguabo, PR).  The highest peak is 301 meters.

Thursday March 11:

There are regular flights to Vieques from San Juan, but we chose to take the ferry ($2 per adult; car ferry availability less reliable) which leaves 3 times a day from Playa de Fajardo.  To get there from San Juan, drive PR 3 east until it becomes a limited access highway.  Then exit at the sign for PR 195, cross over the freeway and bear immediately to the right to enter downtown Fajardo.  After passing the square, you follow the infrequent signs for PR 195 or the ferry symbol (and ask directions to confirm you are on the right road) to Playa de Fajardo.  There are some pay parking lots 2 blocks from the dock.  There are other, less congested routes to reach the ferry, but they are even more confusing.  Ferries to both Culebra and Vieques islands leave from the same dock, so you need to be sure you are on the right boat.  The ferry is air conditioned, without access to the bow, but there is good visibility from the outside rear decks.  The shallow waters on the 1 ½ hour ferry ride from Fajardo to the port of Isabela Segunda, Vieques, do not harbor many seabirds.  But Brown Boobies are regular (we saw 17 on the way out, 19 on the return voyage, mostly on buoys), as are the inshore species such as Magnificent Frigatebird, Royal Tern, Brown Pelican and Osprey (winter).

Remote, white sand beaches are the main attraction on Vieques, so a 4-wheel drive vehicle is a good idea.  We took a publico jitney van from the dock to our hotel (Crows Nest on 5 acres in the island interior.  PO Box 1521 Vieques, 00765; About $75/ night for 2; 787-741-0033) and then rented a vehicle next door at Maritza's rental car (787-741-0078; 374-6552).  We then drove to the south coast to Esperanza, the other town on the island.  Esperanza is a quiet, Margaritaville-style location with a museum and a few restaurants on the waterfront promenade.  On Cayo de Afuera island, just off Esperanza there are American Oystercatchers, Brown Booby and Red-billed Tropicbird (Sorrie, B.A.  1975.  Observations on the birds of Vieques Island, Puerto Rico.  Carib J.  Sci.  15:89-103).  While eating at Bananas Restaurant, we only saw Royal Terns in that direction, but did not scope the island for long.

After lunch, we drove to Media Luna bay for some easy snorkeling.  To get there drive into the well-signed Sun Bay public beach (balneario).  From the entrance booth, drive 1.0 miles to the eastern edge of the beach (bearing left around the parking lot).  Continue 0.1 mile into some thick thorn scrub until you come to a fork.  The right (straight) road dead ends, so you take the left fork and drive 0.5 miles, past taking several right forks, to Media Luna bay.  The snorkeling there was protected but mostly shallow turtle grass beds with conch molluscs.  Birds here included lots of Adelaide's Warblers (proposed to be split 3 ways: Lovette, I.J., E.  Bermingham, G.  Seutin, and R.E.  Ricklefs. 1998.  Evolutionary differentiation in three endemic West Indian Warblers.  Auk 115:890-903), Caribbean Elaenias, distant PR Woodpecker, and a pair of American Oystercatchers circling the bay's rocky entrance and calling repeatedly.  Many of the palm trees had been sheared off by various hurricanes.

After dinner we went to the mosquito-infested Casa del Frances hotel north of Esperanza to meet up with a tour group to Mosquito Bay, a shallow, narrow-mothed bay that hosts a large permanent population of phosphorescent dinoflagellates.  This bay had much brighter waters than at La Parguera on the main island, but like that one, there are threats of development.  The drive to Mosquito Bay is over a very rough road.  You follow the same directions as to Media Luna bay, except that after driving away from the beach, you would take the first left instead of bearing right at the first fork away from the beach.

Sharon Grasso Island Adventures.  PO Box 1526 Vieques 00765 Tel 787-741-0720

(there are also kayak tours run by Blue Caribe dive co.  741-2522).

We almost went horseback riding (741-2607) but the nature tour they offered was booked up.

Friday, March 12:

On the grounds of the Crow's Nest, bananaquits were on the hummingbird feeder, and both Antillean Crested Hummingbird and Green-throated Carib visited the nearby red flowers.  Pearly-eyed Thrashers boldly hopped over the tables at Ernesto's Restaurant at the Crow's Nest Hotel.  We drove through the military guard post (only a drivers' license required for ID) to Red Beach for some good snorkeling.  Northern Waterthrush and the ominpresent Caribbean Elaenia & Pr FLycatcher were the only birds of note.  On the afternoon ferry back, we saw a mother and calf Humbpack Whale just off Isla de Ramos near Fajardo.  The calf repeatedly breached, and as we left the area, the mother waved one huge, pectoral fin at us repeatedly.

I really did not do any targeted birding, but here is my list.  Of note is House Sparrow at the ferry dock, which only recently arrived here.

Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata magnificens
Brown Booby Sula leucogaster
Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias (on a shoal S of Palominitos)
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis
Osprey Pandion haliaetus (Fajardo harbor)
American Kestrel Falco sparverius
American Oystercatcher Haematopus palliatus
Killdeer Charadrius vociferus
Royal Tern Sterna maxima
Rock Dove Columba livia
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
Common Ground-Dove Columbina passerina
Zenaida Dove Zenaida aurita
Green-throated Carib Eulampis holosericeus
Antillean Crested Hummingbird Orthorhyncus cristatus
Puerto Rican Woodpecker Melanerpes portoricensis
Caribbean Elaenia Elaenia martinica
Puerto Rican Flycatcher Myiarchus antillarum
Gray Kingbird Tyrannus dominicensis
Pearly-eyed Thrasher Margarops fuscatus
Caribbean Martin Progne dominicensis
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Adelaide's Warbler Dendroica adelaidae
Northern Waterthrush Seiurus noveboracensis
Bananaquit Coereba flaveola
Black-faced Grassquit Tiaris bicolor
Greater Antillean Grackle Quiscalus niger
Shiny Cowbird Molothrus bonariensis

Helpful sources:

Saliva, J.E.  1994.  Vieques y su fauna: Vieques wildlife manual.  US Fish & Wildlife Service, Boquerón, PR.  (photo book underwritten by the Navy.  May be hard to find a copy).

Raffaele, H.A.  1989.  A guide to the birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.  Princeton.  (more portable than his 1998 West Indian guidebook).

If anyone ever finds a Screech-Owl on Vieques, it is worth getting a detailed description, since it might be the presumed extinct subspecies of the PR Screech-Owl, Otus nudipes newtoni (Moreno, JA.  1998.  Status of the Virgin Islands Screech-owl.  Journal of Field Ornithology 69(4):557-586).

Other background:

Throughout PR there is a lot of opposition to the Navy bombing range and a proposed radar facility.  It would be great if Vieques could follow the path of Culebra Island and have the Navy facilities turned into National Wildlife Refuges.  But if the Navy pulled out, there could be a real estate land rush for the spectacular beaches.

In early 1999 the PR legislature had hearings on a proposed grant to UPR to study a purported high incidence of cancer on the island which is somehow linked to Navy operations.  The information in the newspapers suggests that this could be an epidemiological dead-end with ready explanations.  The cancer "cluster" has multiple tumor types.  Many of the cancers are skin cancers related to sun exposure.  It would be difficult to trace the denominator population since many people live on Vieques for short periods, but leave because there are no jobs.

Mark Oberle

"Permanent" address:

1034 Fayetteville Ave SW
Calabash, NC 28467

Oct-May 1999 address:
M-11, Calle Estrella del Mar
Urb. Dorado del Mar
Dorado, Puerto Rico

res: 787-796-0784

Birding Top 500 Counter